Tennis legend Roger Federer wasn’t his usual self as he bowed out of the Shanghai Masters quarter-finals.
As Ashleigh Barty held up the French Open Trophy last weekend, the happiness on her face competed largely unsuccessfully with the look of utter disbelief that overshadowed the joy for much of the time.
There was ample reason for her to consider this an otherworldly experience, a dream she would suddenly find herself waking up from.
Five years ago, at the ripe old age of 18, Barty had come to the reluctant conclusion that, notwithstanding the sacrifices she had made thus far and the tremendous promise she had shown as a junior (she was Australia’s No.1 ranked junior and the winner of the 2011 Junior Wimbledon title), the big bad world of professional tennis was perhaps not for her.
In fact, the previous year (2013), she had reached the doubles finals of the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open. And yet, the pressures of professional tennis, the unending travel and time away from family were not allowing her to enjoy the sport she excelled in, or the life she had chosen.
In a brave move that few professional athletes would attempt, she decided to try her hand at her other love – Cricket.
Choosing cricket over tennis
This was not an easy decision to make for the teenager, for there was far more at stake for Barty than another teenager at the same crossroads. Unlike them, the decision she made had far wider ramifications given her origins and her heritage.
Barty carried the hopes of Australia’s indigenous people on her broad young shoulders. It had been over four decades since Evonne Goolagong Cawley had become the last representative of the original Aboriginal Australians to have brought home a Grand Slam.
In 2014, she was the only person who could possibly carry on in Goolagong’s footsteps. And yet the path she was now choosing was that of her other famous indigenous predecessor, Australian fast bowler Jason Gillespie, rather than that of Goolagong.
A dinner with the Australian women’s team before their Ashes victory earlier in the year had sparked Barty’s interest and she was lured into cricket by the thought of playing a team sport and spending more time at home.
While Tennis Australia was not overjoyed by her decision to take an indefinite break from the sport, Cricket Australia was delighted. After just two matches in Brisbane club cricket and a 63 in 60 balls in the second, the Brisbane Heat drafted her for the inaugural Women’s Big Bash League.
Barty’s player page said: “The Brisbane Heat’s newest and most exciting signing; Ashleigh Barty is a junior Wimbledon champion who is set to leave her mark on the inaugural WBBL.”
A couple of weeks into the tournament, Barty would say, “It’s been great in cricket to come into a team environment because it’s the first time I’ve ever experienced it and I’m loving every moment.”
She had every reason to be happy. Just four months after her first net session since making the switch to cricket, the 19-year-old was showing her prowess with the bat. She made 39 off 27 balls, including a six, in the Heat’s 20-run loss to the Melbourne Stars to open the tournament at Junction Oval.
T20 was the perfect format for someone who had not been formally trained as a cricketer with the benefits (and in this case perhaps the handicap) of playing with a straight bat. Batting at No.6 in the Heat line-up, Barty was the second highest scorer for her side. Her post-match interview summed it up:
“I haven’t really had time to get a set technique so I’m just going out there and having a swing so it was good to get some runs on the board.”
Andy Richards, the coach who brought her into cricket, had been impressed at first sight by this tennis player – who had never played cricket at any level. Richards recalls having about 150 deliveries sent down at her by a bowling machine, and Barty missing perhaps three and finding the blade of the bat with the others. He found her hand-eye coordination to be incredible and called her “the most gifted person I have ever seen come over from another sport.”
It was a season to remember for Barty, but not necessarily for her batting. After that initial innings, she didn’t really set the world on fire, adding only 29 runs in the other six innings that she played for the Heat, finishing the WBBL that year with 68 runs at an average of 11.33 and a strike rate of 109.67.
What cricket and the camaraderie of the team sport did however was allow her to get the cobwebs and frustrations of the tennis circuit out of her mind. That one year without tennis, was destined to change the course of her tennis career.
The importance of being indigenous
Barty is a proud indigenous Australian woman from the Ngaragu tribe. Her illustrious predecessor, Goolagong Cawley, was from the Wiradjuri people. Having tread similar difficult paths to sporting success, the two have been close since Barty’s junior career, with Goolagong Cawley being an inspiration through the ups and downs of the youngster’s career thus far.
In a reflection of the magnitude of the French Open victory for Australia’s indigenous women, Barty spoke about Goolagong’s contribution and her own broader role, at the press conference following her win.
“It’s amazing how she’s created this path for indigenous tennis in Australia and I think now it’s becoming more nationwide. There’s more opportunities for kids to play tennis, both male and female, and I hope we can continue to create those opportunities and let kids know that this is an option for a career. And even if it’s not, it’s a sport that they can play for life.”
To understand how important these victories are for Barty’s people, it’s worth noting how short the list of indigenous athletes who have had the opportunity to be successful at the highest level is. Indeed much of that success has come in recent decades.
At Beijing in 2008, a bit more than a decade ago, Benn Harradine became the first Aboriginal field athlete to represent Australia at the Olympic Games.
Eight years before, at Sydney, Cathy Freeman had become the first indigenous Olympic Gold medalist on the track.
When Jason ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie of the Kamilaroi tribe retired from cricket in 2008 after 71 Tests and 14 years at the highest level of the game, he held the distinction of being the first indigenous cricketer to play Test cricket for Australia, a format his nation had, by then, been playing for 135 years.
There are indeed a few more success stories, including Goolagong Cawley herself. But that list is not long.
The brevity of the list has some ready explanations – the remoteness of the areas many of the tribes are now consigned to, the fact that the participation of indigenous people is more widespread in sports like rugby league and Aussie Rules football, which are more domestic than global, and the fact that the best Australian athletes, particularly in individual sports, are often state supported to a degree but typically privately schooled and coached.
The successes in tennis, given Australia’s long and dominant role in the sport, have been few and far between. And this is precisely why Barty’s French Open is particularly significant.
Every child who aspires to be a world beating sportsperson needs a role model as inspiration. Goolagong Cawley was Barty’s, and the mantle is now passing on to her broad young shoulders.
A new dawn for Australian tennis
The sores of unfulfilled promise of the maverick Nick Kyrgios and the wasted talent of Bernard Tomic has often been soothed by the occasional Samantha Stosur victory. But that has been a balm providing temporary relief over the past decade for Australian tennis fans, not a cure.
In a country that treasures in its combined memories the exploits of Rod Laver, Ray Emerson, Neil Fraser, John Newcombe and Goolagong Cawley, the dry years have been long and painful.
By lifting the French Open trophy, Barty has not merely raised the profile of indigenous athletes, but she has given hope to an entire nation that sorely needed a hero on the tennis court. She has come as a blast of unexpected fresh air to a nation choking from ordinariness.
It now remains to be seen whether Barty will go the way of the recent one-Slam wonders like Jelena Ostapenko or whether she will take advantage of the weakest era witnessed in women’s tennis in many decades, to make a mark for herself as an all-time great.
In the years ahead, her progress will be followed with enormous interest not only by the 800,000 strong indigenous population who are looking to her as their great sporting hope, but millions of tennis loving Australian people for whom she just might be the reason they throng Melbourne Park with flags waving.
No pressure Ashleigh.